ABOUT ED (STRANGLER) LEWIS BY THE
MAN WHO SHARED HIS SECRET
The Wrestler, Volume 1, Number 2, February, 1967
Reprinted in The WAWLI Papers, Volume 2, Number 35
Note: "The Wrestler" was a shortlived publication with Jeff Collins listed as editor and Jack Riley and Red Stoner as assistant editors. It was published in Port Chester, N.Y., by Jalart House, Inc., a company that was fairly prominent in the field during the late '60s and early '70s. The following story about Ed Lewis is, for the most part, pure malarkey, with false dates and false history galore. It touches lightly on aspects of the Lewis legend, however, even though one never really does figure out what "the story they couldn't tell about Ed 'Strangler' Lewis" was ... and there is no byline for "the man who shared his secret."
The word "great" has been worked to death, cheapened by guys who write movie ads and TV commercials. Yet if anyone deserves to be called "great," in the true sense of the word, it is Ed "Strangler" Lewis.
The word belongs to him because men like Strangler Lewis may, if we're lucky, come along only once in five generations. And when a titan like the Strangler dies, as he did in a veteran's hospital in Muskogee, Okla., on the evening of August 7, 1966, you feel obligated to put him into true perspective so that those who didn't know him will understand why he was a monumental figure in sports.
Lewis lived a long life -- 76 years. And he was proud and happy to the very end, even though blind. He once told me: "I'll always consider myself the luckiest man in the world because I have more friends than anybody else."
He liked to divide his life into two parts -- the hell-raising part, which lasted until he was about 50; and the "golden" part, which began the deay he discovered God. The last 25 years of the Strangler's life were completely devoted to expounding the message of the Lord.
Ed Lewis was a brilliant speaker, the Billy Graham-type with an inborn talent to hold any audience spellbound. Once he kidded: "They sit out there and listen because they're afraid that if they don't I may get mad and put a headlock on them."
The headlock, as everybody knows, was what made Ed Lewis world famous. Some critics insisted that it was his ONLY hold. He never disputed the point. He didn't have to. His headlock was better than a hundred other holds because no man ever lived who perfected that hold to the degree of excellence that Lewis did. He knew he could easily kill a man with it. And sometimes, when he got mad, as he did against Earl Caddock and Jim Londos, he had to fight to retain his self control.
There are those who insist that Strangler lewis was the greatest wrestler who ever lived, even better than Frank Gotch and Joe Stecher and Jim Londos. But you don't have to take the experts' word for it. Just look at the record: The Strangler held the heavyweight championship of the world, on and off, from 1920 to 1932. And being heavyweight champion when Ed Lewis was The Champ had value and meaning.
Ed squeezed most of his opponents into unconsciousness by wrapping his enormous left arm around their skulls. Once he clamped on a headlock, the fans automatically reached for their hats.
And the fans came by the thousands to see him. His reputation was so enormous, and his drawing power so tremendous, that he commanded $125,000 for a single match -- at a time when the dollars was worth a hundred cents.
With a career as long as his, and with purses of $125,000 per match, you might assume that Ed Lewis would have been a multimillionaire. You're wrong. He spent his money faster than he earned it. But he never regretted spending it because he had a fabulous time doing so. "Money is to spend," he once told me. "I do what I want no matter how much it costs."
He loved excitement, and in the Roaring Twenties he got his biggest kicks in flying rickety planes held together with piano wire and animal glue.
Presidents of the United States and European royalty were among his friends but he liked Enrico Caruso, the greatest singer who ever lived, better than he liked President Warren G. Harding or Calvin Collidge because, as he put it, "Caruso let me get a headlock on him. Harding and Coolidge didn't."
Unlike most wrestlers, Lewis kept a careful account of his ring record. After each bout he wrote down the date, opponent, place and result in a black, leather-bound book. Shortly after his last bout, in Honolulu in 1948, he counted up all the entries. They totaled 6,742 matches. And of the lot, he had lost only 35. An incredible record? Strangler was an incredible man.
"Ed Lewis" wasn't his real name. He was born Robert Friedricks. How he became Ed Lewis is probably the only commonplace episode of his life. Like so many other youngsters of his time who yearned for an athletic career -- particularly in wrestling or prizefighting -- 14-year-old Robert Friedricks ran into parental opposition. His father and mother, he felt, would disown him if they knew that his objective in life was to snap other men's necks.
One day in 1897, the postman delivered a book Bob had sent for. It was called "How to Wrestle." Its author: world famous wrestler Evan "Strangler" Lewis.
Recalling that incident in later years, Bob Friedricks said: "Had it not been for that book, I doubt very much that I would have become a wrestler. I was fascinated by the pictures of my heroes ... Frank Gotch, Tom Jenkins, Farmer Burns -- even the Terrible Turk. They were all demonstrating their favorite holds in those pictures, with Evan Lewis giving his inside opinions of each man's ability."
Not only did the book fire the strapping youth's ambition, it also gave him the name which he was to make immortal. To keep the secret from his parents, at least until he might become famous, he lifted Evan "Strangler" Lewis' name, changing only the first part. But the Strangler part could not be lifted; it had to be earned -- with sweat and pain.
The seeds of Ed Lewis' immortality were planted in the small towns of Wisconsin, Minnesota and later in the Dakotas and as far west as Montana and Wyoming. Some of it was lumbering or cowboy country. It was all good fighting country because when men came off the lonely ranges and out of the forests after months of toil, they liked to let themselves go. First came the booze, then the women, and finally the real treat: bustin' heads.
There was always a carnival in range which offered a prize to anybody who could last a few rounds with the house fist-fighter, or five minutes with the house wrestler. There never was a shortage of takers. There were also hastily arranged elimination tournaments between cowboys or lumberjacks, either fist-fighting, wrestling or a murderous combination of both.
Ed Lewis liked to sneak into those tournaments: "I got to be able to act like a cowboy or a lumberjack good enough to fool them," he recalled.
It was in this primitive atmosphere that Ed Lewis learned his trade and perfected his headlock. Once he entwined his great arm around his opponent's skull, it was just a matter of how long Lewis wanted to keep on playing games.
There is little doubt that some victims were permanently injured by the enormous pressure of his hold. This came to light after Ed had become famous. A former lumberjack whose head had been yanked out of joint accused Lewis of having broken his neck in a carnival wrestling bout a few years before. The man demanded $100,000 in damages. Ed denied the charge and the claim was thrown out.
The thing that always puzzled people about the Lewis headlock was that Ed applied the hold ONLY with his left arm, despite the fact that he was righthanded.
But there was a logical explanation. Ed liked to look at himself as he practiced the various holds shown in Evan Lewis' book. Consequently, he studied himself in a mirror. In order to duplicate the illustration in the book, and have it appear "correct" in the mirror, Ed executed his moves in reverse. Soon, using his left arm for the headlock became instinctive.
Lewis' first big break came in 1911 when, in the ornate opera house in Louisville, Ky., he took on a man who was already a legend in his time, the fabled Dr. Benjamin Roller.
Lewis was 20 years old at the time. He weighed 187 pounds and his experience consisted almost entirely of lumberjack and carnival head-cracking. Roller, on the other hand, had had 14 years of legitimate arena experience -- much of it against the finest wrestlers in the world.
No, Lewis did not score an earthshaking upset. In fact, Roller, a scientific wrestler who weighed 236 pounds, won the match after a little less than an hour. But it was Lewis who got the cheers and the eternal respect of the man who beat him. Said Roller, with the class that has always been associated with his name: "This young man, Ed Lewis, has more potential as a wrestler than anybody I have ever known at a similar stage of their careers. His execution of the headlock rates, in my opinion, with Frank Gotch's execution of the toehold."
This glowing tribute made Lewis an important name overnight. But Ed more than lived up to Roller's accolade. And, showman that he was, Lewis realized immediately that it was his headlock that set him apart from the pack.
"Whenever I went into the ring," Lewis once said, "my whole strategy was aimed at getting a tight headlock on my opponent. It was what the people paid to see and I knew that the only way I could be successful was to satisfy the people." He was right. All they wanted to see was the Strangler apply a headlock and squeeze until his victim's body went limp.
The Lewis legend was further beefed up in 1932, when a noted doctor branded the Lewis headlock "extremely dangerous." The doctor pointed out that Ed applied the hold with his arm clamped around the center of the victim's head "over the ears." And that he applied pressure with incredible power, "draining the blood from the head." If this pressure was continued beyond a certain point, the doctor warned, "death would result."
The good doctor unintentionally proved to be the Strangler's best publicity agent. Immediately after the story was published, there weren't enough seats in the nation's arenas to accomodate the crowds. "They're coming," Lewis quipped before a bout in Chicago, "to see me kill somebody."
His assumption was correct, as any pyschologist will verify. But Ed never killed anybody. He seemed to know the exact moment when to cut the frightening power in his huge (22-inch bicep) left arm. Of course when he let up, the victim already had lapsed into unconsciousness.
Lewis first won the world championship in 1920 when, in a mammoth New York City armory, he defeated the great scissors king, Joe Stecher.
Up until 1932, when he was beaten by Gus Sonnenberg, Lewis defeated every important wrestler in the world, winning and losing the title no fewer than five times. During this period, his weight ranged from 200 to over 300 pounds.
He didn't retire after losing to Sonnenberg, despite the fact that he was long past his prime and suffering from the dread eye disease, trachoma.
Not even old age or disease could dim the magic in the name Ed "Strangler" Lewis. The crowds continued to turn out, still hoping, perhaps, to see the Strangler kill somebody.
Lewis' career stretched over almost half a century -- 44 thrilling years. Asked in 1947 how much he had earned, Ed said: "A little over five million dollars." That incredible figure was later verified by an accountant who had examined some of the great man's records. If this was true, it makes Ed Lewis the highest paid athlete in history.
As we said before, Ed had an inborn flair for showmanship. He took great pride in promoting himself. Look what happened on the night of March 6, 1916, in Madison Square Garden:
Lewis had agreed to throw four wrestlers in less than an hour or forfeit $500 to each of them. But the management raised the number to seven (because they figured it would attract more customers). The Strangler disposed of the lot in 22 minutes.
The first to fall was Hans Fuerst, who lasted 2 minutes and four seconds. Albert Miller came next. Albert was on his back three seconds after the bell rang. Five others -- Vogel, Nelson, Schilling, Farmer and Bailey -- followed, and Strangler cut them down as fast as they came into the ring. Bailey made the best showing of the lot. It took Lewis all of 5 minutes and three seconds to stretch him out with a body scissors.
In April, 1920, Lewis challenged heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey through the sports editor of a Louisville, Ky., newspaper. He backed up his challenge with a certified check for $5,000 which he agreed to forfeit if he (Lewis) withdrew. The mixed match, which would have filled the largest stadium in the country, never came off because Dempsey's manager, Jack Kearns, didn't like the idea. But it made headlines, which was Lewis' main purpose, although he always insisted that the one thing he regretted most was not getting the chance to "hug Jack Dempsey."
In later years, as his sight grew weaker, Lewis lent the magic of his name to promote young wrestlers. Lou Thesz was one, Bronko Nagurski another. For this he was paid small sums, enough to keep him going. And some old time promoters -- who never forgot that had it not been for supermen like Ed Lewis they might never have reaped the payday by inviting him to act as golden harvest -- gave the old man "guest" referee stints.
But he was blind, and had to be helped in and out of the ring. The real referee was Ed's "assistant." Lewis was led to a side of the ring, and his hand placed on the top rope. He never moved from that position all during the match, although once in a while, when he instinctively knew what was happening, he would growl in his deep voice: "All right, now. Break it up!"
In a way it was a pathetic sight. But it had value, too, like the night in Amarillo, Texas, in 1959. As Lewis was helped into the ring, a man seated in the third row leaned over to his son and said, "Look at that old man. Pay no mind to the wrestlers. Just look at that old man. I want you to be able to tell your children that you once saw Ed 'Strangler' Lewis."
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